How to be invisible, p.9
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       How To Be Invisible, p.9

           Tim Lott
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  Lloyd Archibald Turnbull did as he was told, rising from his chair with a studied slowness and putting the gum into a litter bin at the front of the room. Then he went and sat down again while Dr Ojebande stood there, sorting out some papers.

  Dr Ojebande fixed one of his eyes on each of us, which must have been difficult to do since we were sitting a good three metres apart. But then that is one of the advantages of being wall-eyed, I dare say.

  “I don’t know what’s going on between the two of you, but I want it to stop, right now.”

  Lloyd Turnbull looked innocent. I, predictably, looked at the floor.

  Dr Ojebande turned to Lloyd Turnbull.

  “Turnbull. You’re not a bad boy despite what you obviously think of yourself. You are clever and articulate. I know that life hasn’t been easy for you since your accident. And I know that your home life isn’t always perfect.”

  It was Turnbull’s turn to blush. He shifted on his chair slightly as if very uncomfortable.

  “The solution to your problems is not taking out your frustration on other children. In the long run, it will simply make you unpopular, although in the short term it may attract some of the stupider children into your circle. Children who are not worthy of you.”

  Lloyd Turnbull just sat there, now looking resentful, as if Dr Ojebande had spoken out of turn. I was certainly surprised that he had revealed such intimate details of Turnbull’s life in front of me.

  Now he turned his attention to me.


  He paused as if uncertain what to say. He pursed his lips.

  Finally, he said in a quiet, serious voice, “Nyman. Some people are natural victims. Not because they are members of an ethnic minority, or because they are under, or indeed over, endowed with certain gifts such as intelligence or physical grace. Some people are natural victims because they indulge in self-pity, and compensate for their lack of popularity by imagining that they are superior to others. You are not superior to others and you are not inferior. You are just a boy, like any other. Behave like one, and you will find that you will be respected, and, in the long run, liked – or if not liked, then at least accepted by your peers.”

  He paused as if trying to decide what to say next. He coughed, then spoke again, even more softly this time.

  “I understand perfectly well that you are shy. Perhaps you have good reason to be. But shyness is a choice, not a medical condition. I can’t teach you how to be more assertive. I can only tell you that keeping your head down and trying to avoid everyone’s attention will only have the opposite effect in the long run.”

  This seemed to complete Dr Ojebande’s speech. I waited for him to give us some lines to copy or something else to do. But instead he sat down behind the desk.

  “I don’t want to let you both off the hook by giving you any work to do. I just want you to sit there for an hour, quietly. Spend your time reflecting on what I have said.”

  Dr Ojebande looked up at the clock on the wall.

  “The hour begins now.”

  Turnbull looked agitated. “But Dr Ojebande, you were five minutes late and we were on time, so it isn’t fair that you…”

  “You will stay an extra five minutes, Turnbull. Don’t speak again or I’ll add another ten minutes.”

  Dr Ojebande knew how to punish. Any kind of tedious homework would have been better than just sitting upright at our desks, staring in front of us and doing nothing. My mother is an evangelist for the practice of meditation, which is basically the same thing. But I cannot see the appeal myself. The hour passed with extraordinary slowness. I had lots of internal conversations between me and myself, but they were entirely without interest. Then, at 4.41 p.m., Dr Ojebande looked up from his black Bible and dismissed me.

  I rose and made my way towards the door. Lloyd Turnbull threw me a glance as I left. Oddly, it didn’t seem hostile. It was more like a conspiratorial “I hate him – don’t you?” I kept my face impassive and left the room.

  Once again, my stomach seemed to be upset. I spent several minutes in the bathroom feeling unwell. After I had washed my hands, I emerged into the corridor again. Through the window I could see Lloyd Turnbull’s mother behind the wheel of an old, dust-coloured Ford Focus parked outside the school gates. She was clearly waiting to pick Lloyd up.

  It was then that I had the idea. This was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss.

  I made my way back into the bathroom, where there was a full-length mirror, and took How To Be Invisible out of my bag. I braced myself, faced the mirror and got ready to run.

  Then a thought struck me. I knew the book worked in my bedroom, but what if it didn’t work in here?

  There was no time to think about it. I held the book to my chest and ran at the mirror.

  Seconds later, I found myself sprawled on the floor of the bathroom. I stood up and looked in the mirror. Nothing. The magic had worked again. Without another pause, I headed out of the door. I could see Lloyd Turnbull getting into the front seat of the car beside his mother. She had her mouth open, apparently shouting at him.

  I ran out of the school gates. Lloyd Turnbull’s mother was still yelling at him. He looked very different to how he looked in school. Instead of being cocky and self-assured, he looked afraid. She was skinny, with muscled arms. Her head seemed slightly too big for her body, and her hair was long and straightened and dyed blonde.

  I reached the car. But then it occurred to me – how was I going to get in without them seeing?

  Then, to my horror, Mrs Turnbull whacked Lloyd round the back of the head, and to my astonishment, he started crying. I decided, on impulse, to take a chance. While their attention was elsewhere, I opened the back door, climbed in and closed it again. Neither Lloyd Turnbull nor his mother seemed to notice. At that moment, the engine revved and the car rattled off down the road, smoke pumping from its exhaust.



  The car fell into a tense, jagged silence. Mrs Turnbull took a cigarette out of a packet and lit it with a flip-up metal lighter. Her hair was not made of snakes and she wasn’t all that bad looking, in a scorched sort of way – her face was red and raw but she had pretty hazel-coloured eyes and a pink mouth. All the same, I knew what Susan Brown meant about her being a gorgon. She had hardly stopped berating Lloyd Turnbull since he got in the car. Her voice was like one of the emery boards my mother used to file down her fingernails.

  “What’s the point of you?” she kept asking Lloyd Turnbull, as if he could possibly answer such a question. After all, what’s the point of anyone?

  The cigarette smoke was building up. All the windows were closed. I thought for a moment that I was going to start coughing, but I managed to suppress the urge.

  I stared out of the window as we drove. At one point, I saw Mr Maurice Bailey drive by in his famous Land Rover. It was rusty, coughing great clouds of black smoke out into the atmosphere and making loud bangs. Attached to one wing there was a Union Jack flag, and he was driving too fast.

  Eventually we pulled up outside what I presumed to be Lloyd Turnbull’s residence. The block of flats was constructed from concrete, with a flat roof. It was the shape of a rectangle or cuboid. The concrete had discoloured with the weather so that there were long stains running down the front of the block.

  There were perhaps twenty front doors in the block. The flats were on two levels and on the top level there was a narrow balcony or walkway. I waited and watched as Mrs Turnbull and Lloyd Archibald left the car and headed towards them. Mrs Turnbull walked in front, teetering on her high heels, and Lloyd Archibald followed behind, staring glumly at his feet. They entered a ground-floor flat and closed the door behind them. When I was sure no one was watching, I exited the vehicle.

  I glanced up at the sky. It looked as if it was going to rain. I suddenly wondered whether, if it rained heavily, my body would be outlined by the precipitation that fell on me. I imagined that it woul
d be. Then people would know I was invisible and I would lose my power.

  Hurrying under the balcony that extended from the flats above, I was now faced with the problem of how to gain access to the Turnbulls’ home. I could hardly ring on the doorbell and ask to be let in. I supposed I could get them to open the front door and then try to slip in, but it felt too risky.

  I wondered if these places had gardens. I walked around the side of the building, out to the rear, and sure enough, there was an array of back yards. I counted the back doors until I came to the Turnbulls’. I saw an unsecured garden gate. On the other side a patch of bare, withered, untended lawn and plastic-framed French windows, covered by net curtains the colour of weak mustard.

  I hurried up to the back door and tried the handle. The door was unlocked. I crept in as silently as I could. Although I didn’t need to be all that quiet because Mrs Turnbull was shouting again.

  There was mess and junk scattered around the place and clothes were strewn on the floor. Nothing was tidy. In the sink, there was a bowlful of washing-up on which dozens of flies had settled comfortably. The whole flat smelled of cigarettes and there were full ashtrays everywhere. There was a smell underneath the smoke – of old curry, processed food and chemical air freshener.

  The door to the front room was open. I reached it just in time to see Mrs Turnbull grab Lloyd Archibald’s withered arm and shake it, hard. He was wincing with pain. He could easily have knocked her over with his other, strong, arm, but he simply cowered.

  “If Johnny was here to see this—” said Mrs Turnbull.

  “If Dad was here, he wouldn’t let you hit me,” muttered Lloyd Turnbull. “But he couldn’t stand the sight of you. He left because he fell in love with someone who was actually nice to him and didn’t nag him all the time like a witch.”

  “Then why did he hardly ever come back to see you?”

  “Because he was ill.”

  “He wasn’t ill. He was a hopeless drunk. It was the drink that killed him. Or driving with half a pint of whisky inside him. Didn’t do your arm much good either. What have you got to say about that? Your dad did that.” She was still holding on to his bad arm. “Good dad, eh? A proper diamond.”

  There were tears in Lloyd Turnbull’s eyes. “It wasn’t half a pint, nothing like it. He wasn’t drunk – it was an accident and it wasn’t his fault. You’re a bloody cow. I hate you. If Dad was still alive, things would be different.”

  “Too bad that he’s dead then.”

  Then she shook his bad arm even harder and he almost doubled up in pain. I wanted to do something to stop her, but I couldn’t. The woman seemed positively demented. She started screaming about all the effort she had made to give him a proper education, so that he could overcome being a “freak”, and that this was how he repaid her.

  Just then I froze with fear. A vicious-looking little dog had appeared in the doorway, barking as furiously as Mrs Turnbull was shouting. He was looking very fixedly in my direction. I supposed that he could smell me. He looked like he would enjoy nothing more than ripping my throat out and having my larynx for dinner. His whole body was like a clenched fist.

  He took a step closer to me, and his barking became more frenetic. I was thinking about running, but I could never outpace him. I wondered if my blood was invisible because if it wasn’t, it was going to make a hell of a mess on their carpet.

  “Chronic, shut up!” said Mrs Turnbull, letting go of Lloyd’s arm and grabbing the animal fiercely by the collar.

  “Now look what you’ve done,” she said to Lloyd Turnbull. “You’ve upset my Popsicle.”

  At this, she got down on her knees and ruffled the back of the dog’s neck, and then actually kissed him on the mouth. It was disgusting.

  “He wants a walk,” said Lloyd Turnbull, sullenly.

  “If you think I’m going to fall for that one, you’re mistaken. You’re not taking him anywhere.”

  She turned towards the dog.

  “You’ll wake the dead, Chronic.”

  Chronic was looking at me as if he wanted to gnaw me to death. I knew he could smell me, and it felt as if he could see me. His barking got louder still as he strained at the collar. Mrs Turnbull fixed a choke chain to his neck and pulled on it as if to test it. She turned to Lloyd Turnbull.

  “Go to your room and don’t come out again. You’re not getting anything to eat tonight. I’m taking Chronic out. He needs to do his business. Don’t talk to me again. I don’t want to hear your voice. I don’t want to see your face. The sight of you makes me puke. You know why? Because it reminds me of your father. Get to your room. Go on, before I lose my rag completely.”

  Lloyd Turnbull didn’t move. He just stood staring at his mother with absolute hatred in his eyes. Mrs Turnbull pulled the choke chain tight, so Chronic’s bark suddenly became a strained whimper. Lloyd Turnbull looked at Chronic, who now seemed to be having trouble breathing. Mrs Turnbull pulled the choke chain even tighter, and Chronic appeared to stop breathing altogether.

  “Go to your room,” said Mrs Turnbull again, this time very quietly.

  Slowly, resentfully, Lloyd Turnbull turned and walked towards the rear of the flat without another word.

  Seconds later, Mrs Turnbull left with the dog and the house fell into a melancholy silence.

  Very carefully, I traced Lloyd Turnbull’s steps to his bedroom. The door was open a crack. I dared not open it further. But looking through, I could see Lloyd Archibald Turnbull doing something very strange.

  He was punching his bad arm with the fist of his good arm, over and over again, so hard that it must have left bruises.

  Then he stopped, reached over and shut the door with such a bang that I jumped.

  I just stood there for a while and examined my feelings. I didn’t feel at all triumphant despite all the hard times that Lloyd Turnbull had given me. All I was aware of was sadness – his sadness.

  I looked at my watch. The Turnbulls didn’t live far from us and if I hurried home, I might still have a chance to catch Melchior and Peaches having their Big Conversation. I left the flat the same way I had come in. Back out on the main street, I snuck into an Indian restaurant which had a full-length mirror, restored myself to visibility and hurried home as fast as I could.

  Peaches had not come back from pilates yet, and Melchior was sitting in a chair reading New Scientist magazine. When he heard me come in, he looked up from the magazine and smiled.

  “Strato, is everything OK? You look a bit out of breath. Have you been running? Sit down. Would you like a glass of water?”

  I said I would. Melchior stood up and ruffled my hair. That’s the other thing he does, along with tapping me on the nose. He sniffed the air.

  “You smell of curry.”

  “We had it for lunch at school today.”

  “Not according to the menu we’ve got pinned up on the fridge.”

  Melchior has an acute memory. It can be quite irritating.

  “It’s out of date.”

  “What kind of curry was it?”

  “Dad, I’m thirsty.”

  “Sorry, Fender.”

  Fender is his pet name for me, after “Fender Stratocaster” – a make of guitar. I sat down and Melchior went to fetch me the water.

  My father is a very nice man, although often somewhat abstracted. He is so absent-minded that on one occasion he forgot to put his swimming trunks on at the public swimming baths and emerged from the changing rooms totally naked. I don’t know how he felt about it, but I had never been so embarrassed in my life.

  All the same, Melchior is a good father. When I was younger, Melchior was always the one to read to me in bed, and take me to the park to play football. Peaches cooked and fussed and liked a good hug, but my father did all the fun stuff. I thought it was terrible that Lloyd Archibald Turnbull only had that gorgon to look after him.

  My father returned and handed me a glass of water with ice in it.

  “Is that OK? Do you want anything else
? I’ve put some lamb chops on the griddle for your supper.”

  I nodded and smiled, worrying about the lamb chops. Melchior went back to reading, and – partly because I was now used to being invisible – I just sat there and watched him as if he couldn’t see me.

  I watched the way his crinkly forehead gave way to thinning browny-grey hair, and the laughter lines around his eyes, and his soft, rather full-lipped mouth, which always looked like it was about to break into a smile. I did like Melchior very much. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he was my hero.

  He looked up, catching me in mid-examination, and grinned.

  “Beam me up, Scotty,” he said.

  I smiled. “Why do you want me to beam you up?”

  “Because you’re staring at me. It’s a bit discomfiting.”

  “Discomfiting”, incidentally, means “causing unease or embarrassment”.

  “I was just daydreaming and you were in my eye-line,” I said.

  “Good. I would be worried if I thought you found me all that interesting.”

  “No. I don’t. No need to worry.”

  Now it was his turn to stare at me – kindly, but intently. Eventually he said, “I hear you got into trouble at school today. Dr Ojebande left a message on the answering machine to say that you would be late.”

  “I’m sorry. Yes, I was kept back. I called Peaches to let her know. Didn’t she tell you?”

  “She’d already left when I got back from work. Maybe she left a note. I didn’t see it though.”

  “I was five minutes late for his lesson, because I had an upset stomach. He gave me an hour’s detention.”

  “Do you think he was picking on you?” asked Melchlior, heading for the kitchen.

  “I do think so, yes,” I replied.

  “‘Is it cos I’s black?’” he said, in a mock ghetto voice. He always does this when he’s trying to be funny, impersonating that old comedian, Ali G, from the television. “Seriously though – do you think he was singling you out?”

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